The king wiped his muddy hands on the legs of his gray breeches, waved to the churls to drag the stump free and attach the ropes to the next victim.
“England is tree country. I am turning it into grain country. This pulley machine was made in the Wisdom-House by priests of Njörth—they are seamen, they know all about pulleys—and some of my catapulteers. They are used to cogwheels. My steelmaster, Udd, is in charge of making the wheels. They have to be small, but strong.”
“And do you let anyone have the machine?”
Shef’s turn to grin. “If they left it to me, maybe. But they don’t. My fee-master in the House of Wisdom, Father Boniface, he rents them out to those with land to clear. They pay a fee for the machine. But cleared land is free for the clearers to keep. Not for ever. For three lives. Then the land reverts to the crown. I get rich from the rents of the machines. My successors”—Shef nodded at baby Edward. “They get rich when the land comes back to them.”
He pointed across the flat fields of Stamfordshire to the now-familiar shape of a windmill, sails turning briskly in the breeze. “Another new thing over there. Not the windmill, you know about that. What it’s attached to. Another way to make new land. Come along and I’ll show you.”
The horse-wain slowed dramatically as Osmod the driver turned it off the Great North Road with its stone-and-gravel surface, and took it down one of the old mud tracks. Shef seized the opportunity of relative quiet to speak again of the successes of the House of Wisdom.
“We’re off to see a big thing,” he went on, leaning forward in his seat towards Alfred, “but there have been some small ones that have made as much of a difference. I didn’t show you how this is hitched up at the front, for instance. But when we learned from Brand and his men how to harness a horse so it could pull, we found after a while that the horse-pull can be too strong. When you turn them, they often break their traces, as the pull comes through one side or the other, not through both. Well, we kept on using thicker leather. But then some farm-churl realized—I gave him his own farm and full livestock for it—that you don’t need to harness the horses to the cart. You harness them to two ends of a stout bar instead, and you harness the bar, in the middle, to the cart. That way the pull evens out.
“And that doesn’t just save on leather! No. I did not realize straight away. But often the real change a machine brings is not the first good it does, but the second. The whipple-tree, we call it, means men can plow shorter lines, smaller fields, because they can turn their teams more easily. And that means that even poor men, with no more than an acre or two, can plow their own fields instead of depending on their lords.”
“And they thank the king for it,” Alfred replied thoughtfully. “They become your men, not their landlords’. It is another thing, like your machine-fees, that makes you strong.”
Godive shifted in her seat. “That’s why he did it. He does nothing without a reason. I learned that years ago.”
Shef fell silent, stared at his muddied fingers. After a few moments Alfred broke the silence. “This new thing you are taking us to see. Tell us about it.”
Shef replied in a flatter, duller tone. “Well. Round here, as you know, the land turns quickly to marsh. Some of it has always been marsh. Naturally, people try to drain it. But if you dig a channel you can’t always tell which way the water will run, not down here, or if the water will even go into the channel.
“But we knew one thing.” Slowly the animation was coming back into his voice. “Anyone who brews a lot of beer knows that to get it out you can either tap the barrel low down—and then you have to plug it carefully or it’ll all go—or else you can suck some up through a tube and then put the end of the tube in your jug or bucket. The beer keeps on running, even though you aren’t sucking any more.”